Early Winter Bronze
Catching smallmouth bass before freeze up
When fall transitions to winter, Mother Nature can have some serious mood swings. One day it could be unseasonably warm, tempting you to maybe even sneak on a pair of sandels. The next moment a foot of snow falls from the sky. With that being said, for those times we are lucky enough to get several days of warmer-than-average days in a row, an opportunity for winter bronzebacks surfaces. Only a crazy fisherman would not take the time to experience some of the best smallmouth bast fishing of the entire season.
So why does this happen?
As water temperatures begin to cool in the fall, smallmouth bass do two things. First they begin heading to the area they will spend the winter. Secondly, they begin pigging out with the intentions to sustain themselves through some of the hard knocks winter throws at them. By the time water temperatures drop into the 30s, fish are stacked up in the area they will call home until spring arrives. The trick is finding these areas.
How to find 'em
You are generally looking for an area that is the deepest water in a large stretch of river. Deeper water has more consistent water during the winter months and provides the stability fish need when their metabolism is running slow. Locating these areas is simple in practice, but does take some time. The easiest way, if your river is deep enough to accomodate a motor boat, is to simply put in at the ramp, soak in the scenary as the sun breaks the treeline, and sip coffee as you motor past 10 to 20 miles of river. Take mental notes of the four or five deepest holes you find and fish them as you make your way down river. Make sure you fish shallow and deep. The fish may be anywhere in relation to the wintering hole during nice weather, but they will be in the area.
If you do not have a boat or your river is too shallow for one, a kayak can help you cover water. Wear a PFD, dress to swim, and bring a buddy. Water temps are cold and hypothermia is a real danger. The nicer weather can often make fisherman think this is not necessary, but a little more comfort is not worth your life. If you dress properly, waders cinched tight with a rain jacket and PFD on, you can fish in confidence that if a mishap occurs you will be okay.
Set up a shuttle to eliminate paddling back up river, cover lots of water, and only fish locations that appear deeper than the average holes in your section of river. Make notes of where fish were caught because these spots can be prime locations year after year. Not only is this method effective, but a kayak ride down the river when most people aren't even fishing is about as good as it gets.
If you don't have a boat or kayak, you're stuck on shore. This isn't the end of the world. I have actually caught the majority of my largest smallmouths from shore, but it does limit the ground you can cover. Google Earth is your friend here. Look for bends in the river, as well as rock outcroppings that extend from shore. Both of these tend to have deeper water. Once you have located some likely locations, go out investigating. If fish are there, you generally do not have to make too many casts before you tie into one. If there is no action, move onto your next possible location.
when to fish
Lets be real here, no one gets to fish as much as they would like, so don't use weather as an excuse for not going. The best time to fish is anytime you can. However, the most productive times I have found for early winter smallmouths has been when you have several days of unseasonable warm weather. This rise in water temps gives the smallies a slight boost in their metabolism, forcing them to grab some extra grub to compensate. If fish were scattered, this would be no big deal. During early winter, when you have the possibility of literally hundreds of fish stacked up in one area, if even five percent are in a mode to feed, this can be amazing days of fishing. Plus major bragging rights when you are around your buddies.
Bait and tackle
I love smallies on light tackle. Think what you want, but the fight you get on four pound line is something not easily forgotten. On top of that, and it may all be in my head, I think light line increases the number of bites I get. I don't think it is necessarily because the fish are line shy, but light line minimizes the effects of current playing on the line and helps to keep the bait in front of the fish slightly longer. This may be the difference between catching 10 fish or 30 fish. More fish means more fun, and that's what I'm all about.
When it comes to baits, I love using either a jig and plastic body or a jig with hair. I'm sure you could catch them on other things, but I've had enough success I haven't felt the need. Jigs are versatile. You can adjust the fall of the jig by simply changing the size of it. Add in that you can swap out plastic bodies quickly and you have my favorite smallie lure for early winter bronzebacks.
What kind of jig should you use? Well, I like to let the fish answer that question. I usually start with an unpainted 1/8th ounce jighead tipped with a Mister Twister 3-Inch Meenie. I'm a simple man with simple tastes and my fishing generally reflects that. If the fish don't like what I'm throwing at them, I don't hesitate to change methods. Swimbaits work, as do small flukes, small creature baits, and marabou crappie jigs. The later it is in the winter, the smaller the bait I use, sometimes downsizing all the way to a 1/32nd ounce jighead with a Mister Twister Micro Shad.. No matter what, don't be scared to change it up and let the fish tell you what you should be using.
Smallies are there for the catching as fall slips into winter. They are often piled high and at least a few are willing to bite in the holes they spend the winter in. Fish fast and try different baits until you locate a concentration of fish. Once you have accomplished that, you likely have a spot that will produce numbers of bronzebacks for years to come.